Interviews

The Boy from the Suburbs Who Became Wiley’s Favourite MC

How Devlin went from Dagenham lad to beefing with the man who's since given him a 'Godfather' feature.

by Paul Gibbins
06 March 2017, 1:30pm

Not everyone gets to live this life. In the first of Wiley's two Not for the Radio interviews, he was asked who he thought was the greatest grime MC of all time. While you might have expected him to name D Double E, Skepta or even himself, he went for a more left-field choice – he picked Dagenham lad, Devlin.

Devlin's career has seen him go from an East End grime prodigy into the tricky no-man's-land between the underground and status as a bonafide pop star. After being named on BBC's Sound Of 2010 list at just 21 years old, he went on to sign to Island Records and achieve a degree of chart success, including a top 10 with "Watchtower", a reworking of "All Along The Watchtower" featuring – of all people – Ed Sheeran.

While Wiley may have considered this in his evaluation of Devlin, chances are he was thinking about the Devlin who burst into the grime scene aged 15, with a wild, uncaged flow and bars for days. The teenage Devlin who could stand up on a radio set with veterans and dominate it, with detailed, multi-syllable rhymes on the attack. The 17-year-old Devlin who gave Wiley a stern test on his "Extra Extra" war dub back in 2006, when his crew The Movement went dub-for-dub with Wiley and Boy Better Know over the Kiss FM airwaves.

In those days, he dissed Wiley for being "about 38, 38" but now Devlin is almost 28, 28 and back with The Devlin In, his third album. Gone is the overproduction that marred some of his earlier efforts, in favour of more minimal songwriting and a focus on Devlin's storytelling and technical ability. He also appeared on the track "Bring Them All/Holy Grime" on Wiley's Godfather album, lyrically sparring with Eskiboy while simultaneously showing his respect in one of the most frenetic tracks we've seen come from Wiley in a long time.

It's not just Devlin that's changed during his absence from music, however. The whole musical landscape in the UK is almost unrecognisable from the days when Devlin was first signed. It's been proven that grime can pay, and that there is room for the tough, uncompromising and honest narratives about "inner-city life" that delight middle-aged newspaper culture editors, as well as rave and party tracks. Grime's almost-but-not-quite showing at the Brits this year edged the genre ever-closer to the kind of mainstream acceptance that it has never previously experienced. 

Now there is room in the charts for a more traditional grime sound, unsullied by formulaic pop tropes, would we see a change in Devlin's sound? We caught up with him to find out more about the making of this album, how he and Wiley squashed the beef and where he sees the grime scene today.

Noisey: Hey Devs, it's been a while since we heard from you. How come the album took so long?
Devlin: I've been making music for a long time, I started when I was very young. I needed some time out to just go and be a young man, get some life experience and come back with a more professional head. I started early in the underground. I was on Rinse FM when I was 15 and that's where I met Dogzy and the rest of the OT crew and that's where I started to build a platform.

The grime and rap scenes in the UK have changed significantly over that time, and so have you as an artist. Where do you see yourself now?
Back then it was all about spitting lyrics on instrumentals up radio stations. It was all about the vibe and having fun, then we progressed to writing songs and putting albums together. Tales From the Crypt was the first CD I put together and I think that since then I've always tried to make grime and rap music with plenty of aggression, obviously I've done some deep tunes too. I feel like I'm making the same music but I've progressed as a person, I've grown as a person and experimented with the sound. I've just always tried to be me and I feel like it's going well.

The album is incredibly personal – how tough was it to make?
I was struggling for a while with writer's block; I fell off from the music a little bit. I struggled through and we got there in the end. But making an album is always stressful and at the end of it it's a weight lifted off your shoulders.

How did it feel when Wiley named you as the best grime MC of all time?
I thought it was a major privilege, man. This is a man who I've grew up listening to and who's inspired me. He's a legend in that game, an MC that I respect. I was so happy to do the tune with him and I thought it was a great tune – it had that old school, back-to-back vibe about it.

It really felt like you were both bringing out the best of each other.
Exactly that. The lyrics are full of respect for each other because we're just two people doing what they do best and it all came together nicely. You have to make sure you're on point lyrically if you're on a tune with Will because he's just such a good MC.

Obviously he was doing his thing back in the old Rinse FM days, and everybody knows each other from back then. We had a silly moment back in the day and I really regret doing it, but now we're adults and I was happy to do a tune with him.

How much do you think grime projects are starting to become more conceptual? The lyrics in Konnichiwa and Made in the Manor, for example, are a lot more dark and introspective at times than grime has traditionally been…
I try and be creative, I listen to the music and try and write some lyrics. I'm always looking for different subjects and concepts that I can write about, or different points of view that I can write from. I'm always trying to think of something original and fresh that hasn't been done, or a new spin on an older concept. I try and tell stories straight from the heart but try and be different with it.

I'll always be a Dagenham lad through and through but nobody can ever capture that initial fire, that initial hunger to succeed. When you've not got much and you want to prove to the world. I'm nearly 28 now and as you get older you mature, you slow down, but I've still got love for the music and I'll never stop having that.

How much do your switches between rap and grime impact how you approach each genre?
I like to actually write songs and get a bit deeper with it for my albums, and it's quite hard to do that on grime beats sometimes because there's a lot of noise in them. Sometimes I like attacking those noisy beats. I find it hard to explain what I do, it's a strange process. I've always been able to write to different genres and tempos – if you can't, then you're just a one-trick pony.

How does that compare to something like gearing up for a Fire in the Booth?
When you're doing a freestyle like Fire in the Booth, the lyrics don't necessarily have to stick to a concept or even particularly be about anything specific. It's just about going in, being clever with wordplay and flows. You're not writing about a specific topic, it's about playing with words and making things flow, and you're more free because you don't have a specific concept to stick to.

So those platforms are more about flexing your technical muscles?
Yeah that's exactly it: it's about being technical, showing your flows your word play, your bars. It's closer to what we were doing at Rinse FM – they're bars you'd spit on pirate radio, you know? They're fast, aggressive, but you're not tied to a subject. I like to write songs but I can still go and smash any set, I've still got loads of lyrics.

You can find Paul on Twitter.

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